Know the Method

Because the first and third lines of the villanelle repeat according to a pattern and then must come together as ending lines in the final quatrain, compose the ending (as you would a couplet) first.

Many villanelles fail because the first and third lines of the first stanza are not strong enough to sustain the structure and then serve as a conclusion. By composing the last two lines first, you'll save yourself time and energy and virtually guarantee a first draft.

Compose your final lines carefully so that each reads as a unit of thought or speech. (This will make it easier to insert a line between them in the first stanza and to improvise in the middle stanzas.) Then pick end words that generate many rhymes.

Let me illustrate. Before I began to write this chapter, I outlined the idea for the villanelle "Burial." I wanted to write a villanelle about a farmer who cuts down his crop rather than risk losing it in a storm. I decided to use iambic pentameter because this was a serious poem.

Moreover, I had hoped that the repeating lines of my villanelle would serve as warnings about the storm throughout the piece.

Knowing this, I was able to fashion each line as a unit of speech encompassing or suggesting an idea.

So far so good.

But I wouldn't have gotten far with this couplet:

The stalks of wheat appear to bow and writhe.

The farmer ends his dreaming with the scythe.

In my rhyming dictionary, I found only four other rhymes for "writhe" and "scythe." Then I reversed the verbs to read "writhe and bow" and ended up with forty-two words that rhymed with "bow" and twice as many that near-rhymed: "blow, snow, etc."

The new lines still complemented my theme because a plow suggests "plowing under" or burying one's dreams:

The stalks of wheat appear to writhe and bow.

The farmer ends his dreaming with a plow.

Now I was able to return to the top of my worksheet and insert a line between them:

The stalks of wheat appear to writhe and bow

As funnel clouds descend upon the plain.

The farmer ends his dreaming with a plow.

Voila! The beginning and end of my villanelle now were done. All I had left was the body of the poem. Because I chose my rhyme words carefully, I knew at this point that completing the entire poem wouldn't be a problem.

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